By: Christopher West
In his encyclical letter “God Is Love,” Pope Benedict addresses the widely-held notion that the Catholic Church devalues the body and sexuality. He admits that “tendencies of this sort have always existed,” but he asks, is Christianity really to blame? As I wrote in my book, Good News About Sex & Marriage, “The objective person will admit that a deep ambivalence about the body and its functions, particularly its sexual functions, is not a limited Christian phenomenon, but a universal human phenomenon. As such, Christians, like many others, have not been exempt from the failure to appreciate fully the goodness and beauty of sex.”
Tragically, many Christians grow up considering their spirits “good” and their bodies “bad.” Such thinking couldn’t be further from the authentic Christian perspective! God made us as an integral unity of body and spirit and “behold, it is very good” (see Gen 1:31).
Divinizing the Body
The idea that the human body is “bad” is actually a heresy (a blatant error repeatedly and ardently condemned by the Church) known as “Manichaeism.” Mani, or Manichaeus — after whom this false teaching is named — condemned the body and all things sexual because he saw the source of evil in the material world.
In his theology of the body, John Paul II observed that if the Manichaean mentality places an “anti-value” on the body and sexuality, for Christianity the body and sexuality “always constitute a ‘value not sufficiently appreciated.’” In other words, if Manichaeism says “body-bad,” Christianity says “the body is so good we have yet to fathom it.” Think about it: If the body is evil, then the Incarnation is blasphemy. Condemnation of the body attacks the very foundations of the Christian faith. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, a male child, born of a woman. That would be impossible if the body and sexuality are “bad.”
Christianity doesn’t “demonize” the body, as it is commonly claimed. No, quite the contrary, Christ has divinized the human body. This means he has raised it up to participate in the divine nature. As Catholics we believe that right now there is a male and female body (the New Adam and the New Eve, Jesus and Mary) participating in the eternal exchange of God’s ecstatic, trinitarian love. And the Church teaches that this is God’s invitation to every-body.
Handle with Care
If the Church’s teaching regarding what we should and shouldn’t do with our bodies here on earth is “strict,” this is not because the Church devalues the body, but because she values it so highly. The typical sentiment goes like this: if the Church says you can’t do this and you can’t do that — everything that it seems people want to do — then the Church must think sex is bad. Hold on a minute. “Handle with care” — or even “handle with extreme care” — in no way means “this is bad.” What are those things in life that we handle with the most care? Are they not precisely those things that have the most inherent value?
There’s a parallel here with the Eucharist. The Church has many “strict” teachings about who can and cannot receive the Eucharist, how it’s to be received, and with what spiritual dispositions. It would be absurd to conclude that the Church is therefore “down on the Eucharist.” It’s no less absurd to conclude that the Church is down on sex. No, both the Eucharist and the union of man and woman are sacred mysteries of the highest value.
A problem with many Christians, then — both those who remain fearful of or suspicious towards sexuality and those who dismiss the Church’s moral teachings as antiquated or “out of touch” — is that we don’t value sex enough. Similarly, our pornified culture does not overvalue the body and sex. The problem is that it has failed to see just how valuable the body and sex really are.